For almost a year,Lenka and I have been living in Beijing. The year has brought many changes and lessons had to be learned. However the life in the Chinese capital has become every-day life. Through Chinese classes the interaction with the locals becomes easier and easier, even though there is still a lot to be learned. Although travel time has become limited Lenka and I managed to get away once more. Through the visit of my parents in Switzerland another trip from Europe to Asia became a necessity. For only the second time in my life I was to tavel across this continental divide. Last time I crossed the Bosphorus in Istanbul by boat to make the traverse, this time it was going to be the train. The adventure started in Moscow.
The trip across Siberia by train has been a dream for quite a while. The current home in Beijing made the trip become closer to reality since Beijing is one of the possible destinations of the trains from Moscow across Siberia. Lenka and I only had to discuss very briefly that we would embrace this adventure after the Christmas break with our respective families. We were both fascinated by the idea to get to know Siberia in winter. Thus we started planning our trip in November: we had to find the right timeframe and route. To do the whole stretch from Moscow to Beijing was out of question from the beginning, we could not imagine how much our butts would be hurting after 7 or 8 uninterrupted days on the train. The second question included the route to choose, we could either opt for the Trans-Mongolian or the Trans-Manchurian which both lead from Moscow to Beijing, the former through Mongolia as an additional country to be discovered.
Both of these routes run along the same tracks for the first 5640 kilometers, before separating in Ulan-Ude in Siberia. The Trans-Mongolian then diverts South to Ulan Bator and Beijing, while the Trans-Manchurian continues East before crossing into China to Harbin and Beijing. Our limited time and the train timetable led us to opt for the Trans-Manchurian which as an additional advantage kept us from having to organize a visa for Mongolia. On the other side a stop in Harbin would give us the chance to visit the famous ice sculptures there. Mongolia would definitely be more interesting with more time in summer to discover the deserts and grasslands of this fascinating country.
The train tickets for the Russian trains were easily organized through the web-site of the Russian railway, however for the ride across the Russian-Chinese border we needed the help of a travel agent. The interesting part about that booking was that the tickets are neither e-tickets nor were they sent to us by mail. We will pick the tickets up in Irkutsk in a hotel. Let’s wait and see whether this actually works.
Lenka and I traveled independently from Vienna and Zurich to Moscow. Our plan to meet at the airport unfortunately never materialized since we arrived at two different airports in the Russian capital. For none of us it was a problem to catch an Aeroexpress from the respective airport to the final stop and transfer to the Metro, the Moscovian subway. With about an hour difference we both ended up in the 108 Minutes Hostel in central Moscow. Getting there we had already learned about the intricacies of the Moscow subway system and the beauty of its stations.
The next morning we learned that it was of little use to get up early in Russia in winter. The clocks run on daylight savings time all year and thus it gets light quite late in the day. It was pitch dark until after nine o’clock in the morning.
After a small breakfast we took off to see the Red Square and the attractions around it. To get there we had to cross the river Moscow which was mostly covered in ice. However there were a few spots of water where flocks of ducks enjoyed themselves in the freezing water. Considering the current temperature of -5Â°C we decided not to join them in their doings. The view from the Moscow bridge gave a first impression of the size of the Kremlin, the political and spiritual center of Russia. The first attraction we visited was the St. Basil Cathedral at the Southern edge of the Red Square. The ensemble of onion shaped towers with the divers colors represents the image of the Red Square to us.
The interior of the cathedral feels as if the building was meant to be a secret place of the KGB during Soviet times. The narrow passages and many chambers made the place seem perfect for a game of hide and seek. Once built as a memorial for victorious wars it serves as a museum today. During our visit we were surprised to hear the singing of amazing male voices in the cathedral. Their quality of sound let us think that the four men in the main hall were not singing for the first time and our suspicion proved to be true: after every completed song they advertised their recently published CD, which was on sale in the cathedral.
Due to a small hunger which became apparent after our first discovery tour across the Red Square we headed out to the Kitay Gorod to combine our sightseeing with the search for food. It was interesting to observe the drop in food prices as we moved farther and farther away from the main sights. Finally we ended up in the small restaurant which offered a small business lunch containing a bunch of Russian specialties. Of course I had try that and was quite happy I did.
Passing by small cathedrals with onion roofs covered in gold and other colors we ended up at the main gate of the Kremlin. We were surprised to find a long line of people queuing in front of the gates to enter the fortress. We decided to play along and after only 30 minutes of queuing stood inside the Kremlin without even having to pay for an entrance ticket. However at each little corner there was a little man in green indicating the people where they were allowed to and where they weren’t. We had no idea in what kind of event we had ended up, but decided to just tag along. Amidst the cathedrals of the Kremlin finally the people gathered in a large circle and everyone was expectantly looking to the center of said circle. The only thing we could make out were 3 people organizing the crowd. We expected some sort of procession to begin shortly. The procession finally appeared in form of children with cookie boxes ready to be picked up by their parents which had gathered in a large circle. Once they had found each other they jointly left the Kremlin again and that was it. We did likewise just without the cookie boxes.
Since we had not picked up any children in the Kremlin we decided to continue our discovery tour of Moscow’s city center on our own and ended up in one of the numerous cafes of Russian cities. Warmed up and strengthened we enjoyed the winter atmosphere in snowy weather on the Red Square, before crossing the river Moscow again to head back to our hostel.
The next morning we again enjoyed a small breakfast before heading out to visit the Kremlin again. This time we decided to pay an entrance fee and also visit the cathedrals on the Kremlin grounds. We headed straight to the official entrance and were surprised to find that no tickets to visit the cathedrals were on sale. Fortunately we decided to ask the nice lady at the counter and she let us know that the entrance ticket for the Kremlin include the visit of the cathedrals. Saving 500 Rubles in the process we found no reason to complain.
Contrary to the previous day there were not many people present and we could unhurriedly visit the open cathedrals. Unfortunately the bell tower of the Ivan the Great cathedral was closed, which might have been the reason for the reduced price of the tickets.
Although the outside of the cathedrals look rather simple, with the exception of the onion shaped towers, their interior is richly decorated with icons of the Orthodox church. It is quite interesting to observe the many difference in architecture and decoration of the different cathedrals in the Kremlin.
The final object during our visit to the Kremlin was the patriarch’s palace, before we bought a small souvenir from Moscow and headed off to find a place to eat lunch. We ended up finding a nice self-service restaurant near our hostel were we stuffed our stomachs since we wanted to board the train to Yekaterinburg with full stomachs. We finally gathered all our belongings in the hostel before headed to the Yaroslavl train station where our train was to leave.
After a short wait at the train station the signs indicated that we would find our train on track 2 to where we immediately headed. We got the honor of checking the whole train since our berths were located in the first carriage behind the locomotive. After a thorough check of our incompletely printed e-tickets we were allowed to board the train.
Immediately we started unpacking the necessary utensils for the train ride. We finished just as our first fellow passenger, a man in his mid-forties, entered our compartment. We were finally joined by a younger very quiet fellow.
Our first co-rider immediately started unpacking his stock of beers, organized glasses with the provodnitsa and offered some of it to everyone. To his dismay I was the only one joining him and even I did not enter into a competition who could drink more. Lenka got a chance to practice her Russian which became more and more difficult as time and beer went by. After 4 bottles he decided to lay to rest and fortunately for the other occupants of the compartments did not start snoring as expected.
When I first looked into his face the next morning he immediately offered me a first beer of the day. Politely I declined. I preferred to have a cup of tea for breakfast.
Once daylight arose we had a great view on snowy landscapes, a small village every now and then and mostly trees. Fortunately for us it had only recently snowed such that the area was freshly covered in snow and thus everything looked fairy-tale like. Right on time at 8:32pm the train arrived in Yekaterinburg. The first leg was completed successfully!